Restaurants are breeding grounds for racism, sexism and, in general, disrespect for the beliefs and lifestyles of others.
Sometimes it’s woven into the banter of a dish dog and a cook. It can be heard in a heated group conversation between regulars at the bar. And worst of all, it can be directed at a customer.
I used to believe when a server made an inappropriate, yet harmless remark of any kind, it could be attributed to innocent ignorance or lack of education. Poor grammar for example, was recently heard at a pricey South Portland restaurant.
“The chef ain’t making that dish tonight” made me feel uncomfortable because I was passing judgement on both the server (for her chalkboard-scraping choice of words) and the house itself (for not having an advertised special).
My friends called her language a terrible representation of the place, and I silently went down the rabbit hole of employee training do’s-and-don’ts. The service overall was good, but we were peppered with “ain’ts” all evening. I left feeling conflicted about my own snobbery versus minimally expected professionalism.
But that’s Kid’s Menu stuff.
A bazillion years ago, when I was promoted to busser from the position of removing gum off the bottom of bar stools, I learned a cardinal restaurant rule that’s broken on a daily basis:
“Someday Sassy, when you get behind the bar, don’t discuss sex, religion or politics. With your big mouth, you’ll be in trouble.”
Too young and naive to fully grasp the message, I have rarely heard people talk about anything else. And believe it or not, most of the time, I keep my big mouth shut. I may roll my eyes and give someone the death stare for a homophobic slur, but that’s about it.
Usually, someone else will do the talking for me, and as our presidential elections progress, so does the hateful conversation. Most of it is legitimate fear and lots of frustration, but sadly, it isn’t innocent.
As a mother, I have instilled a sense of fair and equal treatment for all in my now 20-something daughters. Having done at least this one thing right, they are both good people, full of compassion and a desire to help others.
Akin to the Golden Rule, it’s a philosophy I carried over to many years of restaurant management. Seniority has its privileges, but all employees deserved good shifts. The first to request a day off would most likely get it, and, except for fancy titles, the playing field was level.
It was during those very days, I took an afternoon off to spend with my youngest daughter. We were going shopping for her bat mitzvah, and our time together was precious. Always a fashionista one step ahead of the latest trends, she made her own choices with taste and consideration for our limited budget.
Heading home, we stopped at a chain restaurant for a treat, and discussed her bat mitzvah preparation. She talked about studying tikkun olam, which is a Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to help perfect or repair the world. Speaking directly to my belief of fair and equal treatment for all, I was proud. She was beginning to walk the walk as a young adult.
After waiting at length, our server arrived.
“Wow,” she said. “Sorry it took so long. I had a group behind you and they all needed change. And the worst part is, they really Jewed me down hard on the tip.”
Stunned and furious, I said, “Excuse me?”
My daughter’s eyes grew wide and I became nauseous realizing this was her first overt experience with antisemitism. Thinking quickly, I calmed myself to embrace this as a teaching moment.
“We’re Jewish and we’re leaving,” I said firmly and quietly. “I’d like to speak to your manager.”
What ensued was a phone call to Portland’s Jewish Community Center, profuse verbal apologies from the chain’s corporate office, and an ice cream party with balloons and swag. I persistently insisted on a written apology to my daughter, which finally came when the company realized I wasn’t going to make a bigger stink over what one manager called “no big deal.”
In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t a big deal. However, when the server made a forced apology, I knew she saw nothing wrong with her comment.
Ten years later, my daughter is in college studying to make helping others her career. Living on one of thousands of vulnerable campuses, I fear for her safety. I fear for her as a woman, as a Jew, and sadly, as an American.
However, I am equally as hopeful that no matter what the religious affiliation, country of origin or ideological belief, others will embrace tikkun olam.
We’re in this together people, so let’s tip heavily, and treat each other the way we want our children to be treated. And, while I broke the rules of avoiding politics and religion, I did omit sex from the mix.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.